Basil 101 – The Basics

Basil is a delicious herb that has been used since ancient times. It has been so highly revered that its name stems from a Greek word meaning “royal.” It’s commonly used in many cuisines around the world and has some very important health benefits. If you’re just not sure what to do with basil, or are looking for some very specific information about this herb and its uses, hopefully you’ll find what you need here. Below is an extensive article all about basil. I hope this helps!


Basil 101 – The Basics

About Basil
Basil is a very fragrant annual herb with leaves that are used to flavor a wide array of foods. Many of us are familiar with basil since it’s a main ingredient in traditional pesto that most people enjoy. It is popular in Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian cuisines.

Basil leaves are rounded to oval, usually with a point opposite the stem end. It is in the same plant family as mint. There are over 60 varieties of basil, all with a slightly different appearance and flavor.  The colors are usually a bright green, but can also have hints of red or purple in the leaves. The flavors can vary a lot, from sweet basil with its slightly sweet, spicy flavor, to anise, lemon, and cinnamon basil with flavors reflected in their names. Thai basil is spicy and often used in Southeast Asian and Chinese dishes. Sweet basil is not to be confused with holy basil. They are both in the mint family, but they are different plants with very different uses. Holy basil is used more for medicinal purposes whereas sweet basil is used in culinary applications.

Basil appears to be native to India, Asia and Africa, but is now grown around the world. The name “basil” stems from a Greek word meaning “royal,” which tells us that ancient cultures highly regarded this plant and considered it to be sacred. Some of that tradition lingers today, as in India, the basil plant represents hospitality, and in Italy, it is a symbol of love.

Nutrition Tidbits and Health Benefits
Although we usually don’t eat huge amounts of basil at one time, it is an excellent source of Vitamin K, with ½ cup of basil providing 98% of our DRI (Dietary Reference Intake). That’s extraordinary! Basil also contains good amounts of manganese, copper, carotenoids (precursors to Vitamin A), Vitamin C, calcium, iron, folate, magnesium, and even omega-3 fatty acids.  It also contains small amounts of an array of other nutrients.

Protection from cellular damage: Basil has unique health benefits due to its flavonoids and volatile oils. The flavonoids in basil have been found to protect us at the cellular level by protecting cell structures and chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.

Antibacterial effects: The volatile oils in basil have been shown to have antibacterial properties against unwanted pathogens. The oils have also been shown to restrict the growth of harmful bacteria including Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. If that’s not enough, the oils in basil have been shown to inhibit some strains of bacteria that have become resistant to some commonly used antibiotic drugs. These bacteria include Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Pseudomonas. They are widespread and pose a real threat to those who become infected with them.

Interestingly, studies published in the February 2004 issue of Food Microbiology reported that a weak solution of only 1% of basil or thyme essential oil reduced the number of Shigella, a bacteria that triggers diarrhea, to a level so low that it was not detectable. This factor alone is an excellent reason to include some fresh basil and/or thyme in foods like salads that are not cooked. Not only will these herbs flavor our food, but they can also help to ensure it is safe to eat!

Anti-inflammatory effects: Eugenol, a component in basil’s essential oil, has been found to block the activity of the enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX), the SAME enzyme that is blocked by many over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and to a lesser degree, acetaminophen. This shows that, if taken in a high enough amount, basil can be used as an anti-inflammatory agent, helping conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions.

Cardiovascular benefits: Basil is a very good source of pro-vitamin A through its carotenoid content. Carotenoids are powerful anti-oxidants that help protect our blood vessels and circulating cholesterol from free radical damage, helping to ward off heart disease. Basil is also a good source of magnesium, a mineral known to help relax the blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure and improving blood flow, and also reducing our risk for cardiovascular disease.

With all things considered, we have plenty of reason to include basil in our foods!

How to Select Basil
Dried basil is available in just about any grocery store. When selecting dried basil, opting for organic basil ensures that it was not irradiated, which reduces its Vitamin C and carotenoid content.

Many grocery stores also carry fresh basil in the produce department. When opting for fresh basil, look for bright, deep green leaves. Avoid those with dark spots or yellowing leaves.

How to Store Basil
Store all dried herbs in air-tight containers, away from light, heat, and moisture. When kept properly, dried herbs will keep for a long time, years in fact. However over time, the flavor will diminish. Dried basil will retain good quality in your pantry for 2 to 3 years.

To tell if a dried herb such as basil is too old and needs to be replaced, place some in the palm of your hand. Rub it to release the oils, then smell it. If it’s aromatic, it’s still fine. If there’s little to no aroma, it has seen better days. It’s time to get a new jar.

Fresh basil should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a slightly damp paper towel and placed loosely in a plastic bag. Basil can also be stored like fresh flowers. Cut a small piece off the end and store it cut side down in a shallow glass of water. Cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator. Change the water every day or two. Basil should keep up to a week in the refrigerator.

Some people prefer to keep fresh basil like described above (cut side down in a shallow glass of water), but on the kitchen counter rather than in the refrigerator. In this case, do not cover the leaves with a plastic bag. Just leave them exposed to the air and enjoy their beauty. Change the water every day or two. Stored like this, you may see roots sprouting from the cut end after a week or so. If this happens, the sprig can actually be planted and you’ll have your own fresh basil plant.

How to Preserve Basil
Fresh basil can be frozen, covered with water, in ice cube trays. Once frozen, transfer the cubes to a freezer bag or container. Such cubes can easily be added to soups, stews or sauces.

Basil may also be frozen whole or chopped in airtight containers.

Frozen basil will have its best quality if used within 4 to 6 months. However, when properly frozen and stored at 0°F, it will keep indefinitely.

Dried vs Fresh Basil
Both fresh and dried herbs have their own best applications. Dried herbs work well in cooked foods. Cooking allows time for them to re-hydrate and their flavors to blend with other foods. Dried basil works exceptionally well in cooked sauces, soups, stews, and on meats.

Fresh basil has a milder flavor than its dried counterpart. When cooked, the flavor tends to dissipate rather quickly, so fresh basil is usually added at the end of cooking time. Fresh basil works very well in cold, uncooked foods like salads. The delicate flavor shines when paired with other fresh foods, yet it doesn’t overpower them. The conversion rate is 1 part of dried basil is equivalent to 3 parts of fresh basil.

How to Prepare Basil
Simply give your fresh basil a quick rinse right before using it then pat it dry. Remove the leaves from the stems and cut them as desired. Many chefs roll the leaves and slice them (chiffonade) for use in just about any dish. Some resources suggest tearing basil leaves with your fingers, or cutting the leaves only with a ceramic knife to prevent oxidation which causes them to turn dark.

Quick Tips and Ideas for Using Basil
* Make a dairy-free pesto by combining chopped basil with garlic and olive oil. Add ground pine nuts, if desired. This can be used as a topping for pasta, salmon, and bruschetta.

* Top fresh tomato slices with mozzarella cheese, then sprinkle with chopped fresh basil leaves.

* The oils in fresh basil are volatile, so many chefs add the herb toward the end of cooking time. It will retain the most fragrance and flavor that way.

* Using a ceramic knife when cutting basil leaves can help keep them from oxidizing and turning dark after being cut.

* Try adding basil to a stir-fry of eggplant, cabbage, chili peppers, tofu, and cashews for a Thai flare to your meal.

* Flavor tomato soup with a puree of basil, olive oil and onions.

* Try a basil tea by infusing leaves in hot water for 8 minutes. OR try flavoring a cup of black or green tea with some fresh basil leaves for a mild spicy addition.

* The basil leaves are the main part of the plant used in foods. The smaller stems may be used, but the thicker stems and stalks can be bitter. Also, the stems and large veins have compounds that can turn pesto brown and dark, so it’s best to stay with just the leaves.

* If you grow basil, the white flowers of the plant are edible.

* One tablespoon of fresh basil is equal to one teaspoon of dried basil. This ratio applies to all fresh vs dried herbs.

* Mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil and garlic for a nice vinaigrette salad dressing. Increase the basil and add Parmesan cheese for a basil balsamic pesto.

* Are you looking for something really different? Basil not only pairs well with strawberries, but also watermelon, oranges, mango, lemons and lime. You can get creative making this into an interesting fruit salad!

* Try a healthful smoothie by blending together kale or spinach, banana, strawberries, basil leaves, milk of choice, some chia seeds and a few dates for sweetener.

* Basil and mint are in the same plant family. So each can be added to recipes calling for the other. For instance, if a recipe calls for basil, mint can also be added for a different flavor dimension. If a recipe calls for mint, basil can be added for a little flavor depth and spiciness. Adding basil to a fruit salad that calls for mint would be a delicious flavor enhancement.

* Add fresh basil leaves to a green salad for a sweet yet peppery flavor addition.

* Basil not only goes well with peanuts, but also peanut butter. Some people actually add fresh basil leaves to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! Basil can also be added to many recipes calling for peanuts or peanut butter.

* When adding fresh herbs to a cold dish, add them a few hours in advance, if possible, to allow the flavors to blend.

* If you have a sunny window, you can store fresh basil there. First cut a small amount off the bottom end of the stem. Then stand the basil up in a shallow glass of water. Change the water daily. In a number of days, you may see roots developing. Those stems can actually be planted for your own fresh basil plant.

* Basil, oregano, and thyme work well together giving food an Italian flare.

* When in doubt with flavoring a dish, remember that basil and lemon always go well together. Add in some garlic and onion for a savory flare.

* Basil goes well with broccoli. The sweetness of basil helps to balance the strong flavor of broccoli. For a quick side dish, simply sauté broccoli and basil together. Drizzle with a little lemon and you’re done!

* Try a summer salad with strawberries, avocado and basil.

* Basil is known to compliment blueberries. Try adding a little basil to a blueberry crumble dessert.

Herbs/Spices That Go Well With Basil
Capers, cilantro, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, salt, thyme

Other Foods That Go Well With Basil
Proteins, Nuts, Seeds: Almonds, beans (fava), beans (in general), beef, chicken, chickpeas, eggs, fish, hazelnuts, lamb, nuts (in general), peanuts, peas, pine nuts, pistachios, pork, tofu, walnuts

Vegetables: Artichoke hearts, artichokes, asparagus, beans (green), bell peppers, broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, greens (salad), jicama, kale, leeks, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini

Fruit: Avocados, blueberries, lemon, lime, mango, nectarines, olives, peaches, strawberries, watermelon

Grains and Grain Products: Bulgur, corn, couscous, millet, noodles (Asian rice), pastas, polenta, quinoa, rice

Dairy and Non-Dairy: Cheese (esp. mozzarella, Parmesan), cottage cheese, cream

Other: Oil (esp. olive), vinegar

Basil Has Been Used In: Aioli, beverages, breads, Cuban cuisine, curries, egg dishes (frittatas, omelets), French cuisine, gazpacho, Greek cuisine, Indian cuisine, Mediterranean cuisine, pasta dishes, pestos, pizzas, ratatouille, risotto, salad dressings, salads, sandwiches, sauces, soups, Southeast Asian cuisines, stews, Thai cuisine

Suggested Flavor Combos:
Combine basil with…
Capers + tomatoes
Chiles + cilantro + garlic + lime + mint
Chiles + olive oil + pine nuts + sun-dried tomatoes
Corn + tomatoes
Cucumbers + mint + peas
Garlic + olive oil + Parmesan cheese + pine nuts
Garlic + olive oil + tomatoes
Mozzarella cheese + olive oil
Mushrooms + tomatoes
Tomatoes + white beans

Recipe Links
25 Basil Recipes Featuring the Fresh Summer Herb

40 Easy Ways to Use Up Fresh Basil

91 of Our Favorite Basil Recipes

33 Basil Recipes So You Can Eat and Drink It at Every Meal

29 Fragrant Basil Recipes We Love

Shrimp and Basil Fettuccini

Fresh Ontario Greenhouse Tomato-Basil Soup

Snap Peas, Basil, Tomato and Cucumber Salad

Strawberry Basil Lemonade


Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

About Judi

Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.

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